Notes on the university and the means of production

1. Consumption and production: The dominant discourse around higher education in the UK is its marketisation, i.e. knowledge as a commodity and universities as competing capitals.  Students are increasingly indentured consumers. Lectures are reduced to ‘content’ and academics are the original knowledge workers. At Lincoln, we have a strategy to resist this: Student as Producer. It is an intervention led by my colleague Mike Neary, based on a number of intellectual projects, including the critical social theory of Walter Benjamin [PDF].  Student as Producer has become the organising principle for teaching and learning across the entire institution. Student as Producer is against the marketisation of higher education. It is an attempt to shift the discourse away from the exchange of knowledge towards the production of knowledge. In essence, we ask what is higher education for? It is for the production of knowledge.

2. Technology for the production of knowledge: My work in the Centre for Educational Research and Development focuses on the role of technology in higher education. The role of technology in higher education is the same as the role of technology in other industries, which I do not need to elaborate here. The use of technology in higher education is not static nor linear. Scientific research undertaken in universities leads to the development of new technologies (e.g. computers) which confront students and academics when commodified. My particular interest in the role of technology in higher education is not, as is often the case, the pedagogical use of technology (e.g. the use of computers to support teaching and learning), but rather the institutional, infrastructural use of technology (e.g. the use of computers for scholarly communication). If we view ‘the university’ as an institution that exists for the production of knowledge, then we arrive at the question: what are the means of production in higher education? They are the same as any other industry: labour, science and technology, and capital. Each of these words have common meanings that we use in every day speech, but those ‘common sense’ and naturalised uses derive from historical, social and epistemological developments over hundreds of years.

3. Science as the instrument of capital accumulation: I had hoped, before now, to have written up my notes on Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s magnificent and out-of-print book, Intellectual and Manual Labour. A Critique of Epistemology [PDF]. What is significant here about Sohn-Rethel’s critique is his focus on the history, purpose and use of science. He boldly demonstrates that the history of science (i.e. since Galileo’s law of inertial motion), is pre-dated by and derived from the ‘real abstraction’ of the exchange of commodities. By ‘real abstraction’, he refers to abstract concepts having real, concrete effects. Often, we may not even be aware of or understand the abstraction (e.g. ‘value’), only its material outcome. Put another way, our lived historical experience is dominated (i.e. controlled) by abstraction, which is rooted in the history of commodity exchange. Sohn-Rethel attempts a remarkable study of the development of abstract thought, which I cannot do justice to here,  but to put it crudely, he argues that the origins of abstract thought are to be found in the invention of money as a ‘universal equivalent’ for the exchange of commodities, and that modern scientific theory is “knowledge of nature in commodity form” (132). This has deep and wide-ranging implications, not least in a higher education institution which produces scientific knowledge. If, as Sohn-Rethel argues, all science today is bourgeois science geared towards the purpose of capital accumulation,  higher education is at the heart of this configuration. We are reminded of this when we are told that higher education is an important engine for economic growth. In that claim, higher education is defined as a means of commodity production: it is the producer of scientific knowledge and all its labour power and infrastructure must in some way contribute to this production. But it doesn’t, yet, and there lies the struggle. Not in the circulation of knowledge, but in the production of knowledge.

4. The death of the guilds: In his study of the Death of the Guilds, Krause identifies the relatively recent re-configuration of academia by the capitalist mode of production. His work can be related to Sohn-Rethel, in that they both discuss the transition from artisanal to scientific modes of production; from a mode of production where the intellectual and manual labour were united, to a mode of production where the head (abstract thought) and the hand (craft) are separated. Artisans “owned the means of production” (S-R, 117) and guilds are groups of workers that exercise political power “primarily for their own ends.” (Krause, x). Guilds own the means of production. Both Krause and Sohn-Rethel recognise that the death of the guilds and the artisan mode of production that they were formed to protect, began to crumble with the early growth of capitalism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. For Sohn-Rethel, the writing was on the wall with the development of mathematics. “It is no exaggeration to say that one can measure the extent of division of head and hand by the inroad of mathematics in any particular task.” (113). For Krause, writing in 1996, the guild model of political power in academia only remained to some extent in the Oxbridge colleges. Krause and Sohn-Rethel are both useful for understanding the transformation of scientific research and teaching towards the capitalist mode of production (i.e. economic growth), which in recent years is put forward by the higher education sector as a justification of its continued public funding.

5. The birth of the commons: We can be certain that today, ‘the university’ is an institution organised bureaucratically, technologically, and epistemologically for the production of knowledge which is exchanged as a commodity. No institution can exist at such scale and compete nationally and globally in any other configuration. However, in the last decade or so, the Open Access (OA) movement has developed from within academia in a way that resembles the power of the guilds. The objective of Open Access is to provide scholarly literature online to the public, free of cost and most copyright restrictions. Open Access is a scholarly movement that is wielding political power and has deep implications for the mode and means of the production of knowledge in higher education. If openness within higher education is understood as a ‘recursive public’ (Kelty, 2008), we can observe and predict that further recursions will be deemed necessary to support the logic of Open Access: Open Data, so that research can be verified and built upon; Open Science, where the research process is conducted publicly; Open Source, where the research tools and software algorithms are transparent and accessible; and Open Peer Review, where the verification of research findings are themselves open to scrutiny for bias and inconsistency. Each of these recursions requires changes to the technological, social and bureaucratic configuration of universities (this gradual reconfiguration occupies much of my day-to-day work). Although the concept of recursion suggests a series of steps or iterations, each recursive element can occur concurrently, deferring its limits to the next process while continuing to unfold. As Kelty has noted, “the ‘depth’ of the recursion is determined by the openness necessary for the project itself.” (2008:30). The depth of recursion required by the logic of OA is still being worked out and remains a contested public through which the nature and purpose of science is being questioned. Kelty’s ‘recursive public’ is nothing more than a generalisation of political struggle expressed in terms immanent to its subject. Open Access has recursive implications that amount to the socialisation of the means of production of science. The production of a scientific commons. Communism.

I am grateful to Richard Hall for making clear to me something I had not fully grasped until now. The university itself is a means of production.

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